Georgia college student playing important role in today’s NASA Mars mission

ATLANTA — A truly historic space event is happening today. NASA landed its fifth rover, Perseverance, on the surface of Mars Thursday afternoon.

The main mission is to search for signs of microbial life in the soil, collect samples, in the hopes a future mission can bring them back to earth.

This is something that’s never been done before.

Georgia Tech senior Breanna Ivey tested out the math that helps the rover move during an internship last year. She told Channel 2 Action News that she is beyond excited for today’s landing.

“It will be exciting anyway, if I didn’t have a role in it, but it’s even more exciting to know that I touched something that is going to land on Mars and be the first step in a mission to actually bring samples back,” Ivey said.

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Since July 30, the rover has shot through space. Ivey also soared through a space where few Black women have made their mark.

Ivey said she hopes her story inspires young Black and brown girls to follow their dreams.

“Being a Black woman in STEM, people may try to make you feel like you don’t belong. But always know that you belong in every room that you still put in and that you bring something to every conversation that’s being had. So you are valuable in every space that you are in,” Ivey said.

MARS MASTER

NASA has nailed eight of nine landing attempts, making the U.S. the only country to achieve a successful touchdown. China hopes to become the second nation in late spring with its own life-seeking rover; its vessel entered orbit around Mars last week along with a United Arab Emirates spacecraft. The red planet’s extremely thin atmosphere makes it hard to get down safely. Russia has piled up the most lander losses at Mars and moon Phobos, beginning in the early 1970s. The European Space Agency also has tried and failed. Two NASA landers are still humming along: 2012′s Curiosity rover and 2018′s InSight. Launched last July, Perseverance will set down some 2,000 miles away at Jezero Crater, descending by parachute, rocket engines and sky crane. The millions of lines of software code and hundreds of thousands of electric parts have to work with precision. “There’s no go-backs. There’s no retries,” deputy project manager Matt Wallace said Wednesday.

TOUGHEST LANDING YET

NASA has equipped the 1-ton Perseverance — a beefier version of Curiosity — with the latest landing tech to ace this touchdown. A new autopilot tool will calculate the descending rover’s distance to the targeted location and release the massive parachute at the precise moment. Then another system will scan the surface, comparing observations with on-board maps. The rover could detour up to 2,000 feet (600 meters) while seeking somewhere safe, Neil Armstrong style. Without these gizmos, Jezero Crater would be too risky to attempt. Once down, the six-wheeled Perseverance should be the best driver Mars has ever seen, with more autonomy and range than Curiosity. “Percy’s got a new set of kicks,” explained chief engineer Adam Steltzner, “and she is ready for trouble on this Martian surface with her new wheels.”

LOOKING FOR SIGNS OF LIFE

Where there was water, there may have been life. That’s why NASA wants Perseverance snooping around Jezero Crater, once home to a lake fed by a river. It’s now bone dry, but 3.5 billion years ago, this Martian lake was as big and wet as Nevada and California’s Lake Tahoe. Perseverance will shoot lasers at rocks judged most likely to contain evidence of past microscopic life, analyzing the emitted vapor, and drill into the best candidates. A few dozen core samples — about a pound’s worth (one-half kilogram) of rock and dust — will be set aside in sealed titanium tubes for future pickup.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report

Learn more about the mission here.